(Bloomberg) — Saudi Aramco will surpass Apple Inc (NASDAQ:). as the world’s biggest listed company when it debuts this week after a record-breaking initial public offering. Unlike the tech titan it displaces, barely any of its shares will trade.
The Gulf oil giant sold a 1.5% stake in the IPO, while the remainder stays in the hands of the Saudi state. That free float, or the proportion of stock owned by public investors that can change hands, is among the lowest globally. Many of the biggest companies, from Amazon.com Inc (NASDAQ:). to Microsoft Corp (NASDAQ:)., have more than 80% of their equity owned by independent shareholders.
Among the top 1,000 listed companies by market value, only two companies have lower free floats than Aramco, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. One is carmaker Audi AG, which has a float of 0.36% with the rest owned by manufacturing behemoth Volkswagen (DE:) AG. The other is state-controlled German utility EnBW Energie Baden-Wuerttemberg AG, which has 0.37% of its stock in public hands, the data show. Its two biggest investors each own 46.75%.
Low public ownership levels mean that the Saudi government can push through decisions that are good for the country, but not necessarily Aramco’s minority shareholders. The company, which starts trading Wednesday, will also be captive to OPEC. Saudi Arabia is the de-facto leader, meaning Aramco may have to shoulder the burden of production cuts if others don’t meet their obligations.
That level of control could affect your retirement account. Thanks to the popularity of index-tracking funds, many investors will own Aramco shares whether they want to or not.
The company is so big that index compilers like MSCI Inc. and Russell can speed up its inclusion in global benchmarks. Aramco will likely be given a weighting of about 0.7% in the , triggering $2.4 billion of automatic buying from funds that follow the gauge, according to analyst estimates.
To be fair, even companies that float most of their shares on the public markets find ways to concentrate power at the top. Silicon Valley behemoths like Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:). have special stock classes giving founders outsized control over decision-making.
Fund managers have given Mark Zuckerberg the benefit of the doubt, thanks to strong returns he’s delivered. The question is whether they’ll do the same for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
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